Algerians Without Borders: The Making of a Global Frontier Society. By Alan Christelow. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012. CCLXVI, 266. $74.95.
Article first published online: 17 JUN 2013
© 2013 by the Center for Migration Studies of New York. All rights reserved.
International Migration Review
Volume 47, Issue 2, pages 476–477, June 2013
How to Cite
Khanmalek, T. (2013), Algerians Without Borders: The Making of a Global Frontier Society. By Alan Christelow. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2012. CCLXVI, 266. $74.95. . International Migration Review, 47: 476–477. doi: 10.1111/imre.12030
- Issue published online: 17 JUN 2013
- Article first published online: 17 JUN 2013
In today's global society, intense polemics often replace constructive communication. The value of dialogue has steadily declined, leading to a supposed “clash of civilizations” rather than cross-cultural understanding. Sitting at the intersection of different civilizations, Algeria is well versed in both conflict and conflict resolution. Because of its unique geopolitical experience, Algeria has developed a great fluency in creative interchange with others. Alan Christelow's Algerians Without Borders argues that frontier encounters and border-crossings have made Algerians, especially adept at code switching. Algerians, he shows, have been significant intermediaries between the West and Islamic world throughout history, effectively engaging in constructive communication at the margins. In fact, Christelow maintains that we can learn a great deal about the possibilities of recovering dialogue in the 21st century from the legacy of Algerian border-crossers.
By conceiving of Algeria as a complex frontier territory, Christelow situates its relationship to other places globally. Whereas Algeria is either forgotten or narrowly reduced to a distinct territorial unit in much area studies scholarship, Christelow's analysis presupposes a global perspective that accounts for how legal, social, and psychological barriers implicate cross-cultural relations. In this frontier setting, some encounters between Algerians and French citizens contributed to what philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls a “public sphere,” a domain of open and inclusive discussion. Likewise, Algerian immigrants or refugees from the 18th century to the present are, for Christelow, exemplary producers of a public sphere who practice cultural borrowing, interfaith dialogue, and diplomatic negotiation.
Christelow applies a comparative and long-term perspective that sees beyond Algeria's colonial history. The book offers a refreshing narration of Algeria's present that begins with the Muslim West in 1775, particularly al-Andalus, instead of the French invasion in 1830. From this earlier starting point, Christelow reveals cyclical continuities throughout Algeria's past. In tandem with a historical framework, Christelow adapts concepts commonly used to study immigrant communities in Europe, such as Homi Bhabha's “cultural hybridity,” to encompass a wide range of variables that have affected Algerian border-crossers. His study therefore focuses on the legal and institutional apparatuses that have impacted frontier interactions, in addition to the social experiences of communicators themselves.
Christelow's book, thus, proceeds chronologically, beginning with Algeria's dwindling relationship to Spain from 1775 to 1830 before turning to the colonial era. Christelow explains that the French colonial regime from 1830 to 1911 profoundly determined patterns of Algerian border-crossing, especially in the service of imperial interests. By the mid-19th century, many Algerians lived in exile due to labor migration, military recruitment, force, or resistance to force. The classical figure of the muhajir quickly transformed into the modern phenomenon of the refugee, as Europe seized control of nearly all Arab Muslim territories. Algerian muhajir communities acculturated in diverse ways, through family and marriage ties, school, military service, work, theater, and the media. Until the revolutionary era in 1954, these communities forged connections in their host societies that led to new generations of culturally hybrid individuals. From the 1970s to the present, identity formation has become an increasing challenge for Algerian immigrants in France and other destinations because of difficult conditions within Algeria and shifts in global politics and labor markets.
Most intriguingly, Christelow's historical analysis is grounded in biographies instead of statistics. Examining stories within their historical contexts, he details the lives of individuals to reveal the social factors that influence people's choices. Methodologically, the book stands apart from conventional socioscientific research; it successfully conveys the historical movement of people, albeit through the unconventional use of Arabic sources and archival materials. As such, Christelow's study is a performative one that reflects the realities of migration through the lived experiences of actual individuals while subverting oversimplified categorization. The book's interdisciplinary and innovative methodology humanizes the study of international migration and invites storytelling as a means for building a public sphere. Furthermore, its form allows Christelow's study to transverse disciplinary borders and dialogue with the work of scholars across the social sciences and the humanities, from sociology, anthropology, and geography to Near Eastern studies and religious studies.
Christelow advances many methodological insights that allow us to discern how the colonial system carried echoes of the Inquisition and how the present day carries echoes of both. In all cases of so-called “clashing,” structures of dialogue crumble. However, as Christelow argues, “for different cultural communities engaged in political, economic, and social relations, it is crucial that there be a viable framework of negotiation” (174). Christelow highlights the Rome Conference of 1994 as a significant moment of negotiation during the critical period of the late 1940s to the early 1950s, even if the Conference itself was ultimately a failed attempt at interchange. For Christelow, the Conference imparts lessons about reconciling religion with politics, an ongoing theme in the history of Algerian border-crossing. I wonder, though, whether the perceived irreconcilability of religion with politics is not itself a part of the logic that undergirds the “clash of civilizations” theory.
A critical consideration of disparate grids of intelligibility is essential to Christelow's study, and a helpful starting point to scrutinize appeals to a secular framework of relations created during the Enlightenment. The very language of diplomacy may remain discriminate, however, enabling select voices to speak and be heard. Similarly, the formation of a multicultural public sphere is not the only alternative to dominating cross-cultural relationships and risks the establishment of a democratic pluralism that continues to perceive the Islamic world in a binary opposition to the West and self-determination as incommensurable with civic identity. Indeed, as Christelow argues, we can draw on more than two centuries of experiences from Algeria's migration history for answers to the devaluation of peaceful dialogue and enabling factors of communication. As a frontier territory that produces individuals adept at code switching, Algeria is surely an underrepresented model of cross-cultural interactions. The book neither treats Algeria as a French colony nor an Arab territory but, instead, locates it as part of a global network, developing a nuanced analysis of an otherwise-neglected subject in the study of international migration.
Finally, the book would have been strengthened by a gendered analysis of Algerian border-crossing beyond the significant role of women in family and marriage ties or simply that of female migration. On the contrary, attentiveness to how geographies of power are gendered would have complicated the causes and effects of mobility and could have bridged Christelow's study to other gendered transnational processes. A centralization of race in cross-cultural interactions would also have generated further complications in the social and political acculturation of ethnic minorities in different societies. The incorporation of a gendered and raced theoretical framework would have extended a key segue from Christelow's book into current issues of exclusion and the challenges of today's Algerian border-crossers.